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Rehabilitation Through the Arts

Years ago I had an interview for a position teaching music to secondary school students in the prison system. A friend of mine was a teacher there and she had a love/hate relationship with the work. There were unusual restrictions on her dress:
  •  no open-toed shoes
  •  no bare arms
  • no skirts above the knee
  • high necklines, absolutely no clevege
  • no heel to the shoe
  • nothing in the hair that could be pulled out and used as a weapon
Her description freaked me out, but I took the interview anyway. It paid well and a job is a job. The head of the program liked me. He also liked that I'd be willing to garden with the boys in the summer and teach them about planting and caring for crops. We brainstormed possible units in a music curriculum, but there always seemed to be problems. Here are some of them.
  • Stomp!
    • need to use objects that are not able to be used as weapons, but such objects would by definition NOT STOMP
  • Guitar
    • The presence of strings that could be used to kill inmates if they smuggled one out of the lesson was too risky. 
  • Keyboards
    • Power cords can be used as weapons
    • keys can be dissembled and used as weapons
    • electronics inside keyboards can be used as weapons
  • Orff Instruments 
    • Hmmm, removable metal bars, mallets, pins, and mallet shafts. Weapon, weapon, weapon, weapon
  • Chorus
    • any accompanying instrument can be used as a weapon (keyboard or guitar listed above) and a tuning fork can be sharpened into a knife with relative ease. 
 Now that I've finished my Orff training, I see that a Body Percussion unit would have been great. We could have done vocal sound carpets, moved to body percussion, and then done Stomp! on ourselves. No weapons, no materials at all. But I hadn't had any Orff training when I did that interview, so I had no effective ideas that would work. They decided not to have music instruction and the program was closed (students shipped even further from their families) soon afterward.

So imagine my delight as I was researching another project and came across this program in New York. 

I'm going to have the people at RTA read my post and I'm hoping they give me some feedback about that interview I had in Westborough all those years ago. Maybe they'd be willing to do a guest post and share a little of their process. I know that many of you readers struggle with tough classes. How about some advice with teachers of prisoners in Sing Sing?


Another great resource is Richards Institute The song experiences are for all ages, work really well with troubled kids and need absolutely no equipment. Paper and markers are sometimes used, but not necessary to recieve a benefit from the work.
Dear Suzanne,

RTA is a wonderful program! I hope you get some great feedback. As another theater director who works behind bars, I thought I'd also offer to share my own reflections. The easiest way to begin would be to link you to my book chapter "Humanizing Education Behind Bars: Shakespeare and the Theater of Empowerment": Also, here is my blog: And, finally, a book where 14 prison theater/dance artists from across the U.S. share reflections on their experiences: In addition to all this, I'd be happy to converse and compare notes! ~ best, Jonathan Shailor
Anonymous said…
So sorry to take this long to respond! Finding "prison friendly" materials is tough but possible, especially if you develop a relationship with the facility and they support your program. For instance, we have been able to bring in keyboards and guitars but we must take them out after the session, and we can bring in boom boxes but they must have the ability to record disabled. It helps to provide lots of notice and address possible issues in advance, such as summarizing a book or listing musical selections instead of just asking for permission to bring in a music CD. I've had to talk to a chemist about ingredients in an art supply to make sure it wasn't flammable or could get gummy and be made into a key, but ultimately got permission.

Working with prisoners is tremendously gratifying - every facilitator we work with says they are the best students they've ever had - hungry to learn and absorb everything we can give them. It's worth all the hoops we have to jump through.

Best of luck - Ricki Gold, RTA Deputy Director

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